Monday, May 22, 2006

Michael Nicoloff - Anne Boyer: FLARF continued.

Hi Anne--

Thanks for this very interesting post. First, to tackle my use of “redneck”—in hindsight I wish that I hadn’t used that word, because it taps into the particular narrative that you’re talking about in such a way that it ends up overwhelming what I was actually intending to point to in that statement. I think this was a product of piling on descriptors in order to tease out what I was actually thinking but then forgetting the weight that “redneck” has acquired with regards to Flarf. But what I was really getting at is the part of that sentence after the dash: “a kind of stereotypically lower class racist redneck-type who’s had little access to education—that lack of education being the particularly highlighted point.” Because those moments when certain Flarfy poems appropriate statements that contain bad spelling/messed-up grammar or glaring racist/sexist/homophobic stupidity gleaned from the internets—and particularly when those statements contain both of these things—the spots where this happens frequently end up feeling like a class of folks (regardless of socioeconomic position) who are brainy and schooled (self-taught or otherwise) are just taking easy potshots at the uneducated for their being uneducated. In a different light, it’d have a very “Revenge of the Nerds” quality to it. But from here I think we can see where the jump to “redneck” is made: racist/sexist/homophobic + lack of education invariably = redneck. In light of what you say regarding a lack of textual evidence for the existence of a Flarf Redneck Assault Team (hmm, FRAT)—and you’ve most certainly read more of this work than I have, so I’m betting that you’re probably right—this equation becomes less evidence of something within the work and more of a look into the kind of associational models that are floating around. It’s like racism and bad grammar automatically lead to a lower-class quasi-Southern idiocy—a stereotype that I’m not proud of perpetuating in my last post and which other people writing about Flarf should also shut up about and do some textual analysis (and also quit it with the threats and man-rage)—when in fact racism and bad grammar exist in, um, quite a few other segments of American society, as you’ve said. But these associations, true or not, and fucked-up as they are, are facts of the American landscape, and unfortunately that means sometimes they’ll determine our writing in ways outside of our intent. Therefore, taking misspellings and racist bile out of one context and placing them in another has to be done, obviously, with a great deal of care. As poets (especially of the “avant-garde” set) we are, again rightly or wrongly, associated with a kind of privilege with regards to language, and so our appropriation of languages that aren’t always our own is frequently going to carry the stamp of something like “class” (though that’s not exactly the right word), and that’s simply something that each poem is going to deal with successfully or not. I think that KSM in “Deer Head Nation” frequently does this kind of appropriation in a way that activates it towards fascinating, nuanced, and on-point uses, but at other times (though I don’t think this is my central problem with “Their Guys...”), Flarfy work does seem to be smarty-pantses minstrelizing (not a word, but I’m going with it) a bunch of less-than-privileged folks because of their lack of education. It probably comes down to a case-by-case basis for when this appropriation is on-point or not—and there’d be a lot of subjective disagreement here.

I’m not sure if I’ve really addressed these questions quite to my satisfaction or yours, but this nonetheless seems to be a convenient spot to return to “Their Guys...” and the specific discussion we’re having around how to read this poem—and I have to say that I’m glad that Maggie raised these questions with regards to a specific poem, because so often these Flarf Wars (or discussion of anything, really) have fallen into a kind of vague generality that, in spite of often being necessary, makes me feel more than a bit wary of making any definite statements (despite the fact that that’s what I was just doing in the paragraph above). Anyway, that aside—I think that a certain amount of our disagreement over how we feel about Magee’s poem is going to come down to our individual subjective responses to the language therein. I’m thinking particularly here about your statement that you find the textual surface of “Their Guys...” to be really interesting. I think it’s been established that, while this certainly isn’t the least interesting poem I’ve ever read on the “surface” level, I do not share this same fascination. But it’s pretty difficult for one of us to say that the other is “wrong” in this regard—without some extraordinarily extreme digging into the genealogies of our own subjectivities, unconscious minds, blah blah, etc., to understand the juridical power shaping how our particular “I just (don’t) like it” factors operate, and I’m not sure if it’s really possible to do that, and if it is, it will probably provoke me to have a freak-out/extended personal crisis.

But this said, in aspects of your reading of “Their Guys...” there are things I both agree and disagree with. I also read Magee’s poem as in a sense taking the various at-times-contradictory perceptions of Asian people—the Asian “takeover”; mentions of height; the title and its plays on the perceptions of Asian men as gay (or at other times, feminized or asexual); the Dragon Lady, etc.—and collecting them into a sort of sprung quasi-narrative of illogic. In the context of this piling on of stereotyped perceptions, I don’t think that the ironic moves being made here are going to be lost on most readers. As you say, the critique is obvious. But maybe that’s exactly the problem: when I pose the question to myself of what the actual critique is, all I end up with in response is something like “dudes—racism is fucked-up.” Which takes me back to my initial response to this poem, which was not that I felt so much as though it was racist but that it made me feel bored and annoyed—the kind of extreme language and the extreme reactions it is trying to provoke didn’t give way to any sense of deeper or more nuanced critique, and since, as I said above, I don’t find the textual surface all that interesting, I was left with very little to keep me engaged. It feels like all provocation and no pay-off. So I guess I’d say, yeah, it is an anti-racist poem, but I’m going to have to disagree with it being all that complex.

There’s more that I’d like to say here about the issues that Joanne raises regarding Magee’s position as a white male poet and the way that that interacts with his poem, but I’m gonna hold off on that (must articulate better). I’m very interested, though, about what you’ve said about KSM and the convenient “forgetting” about him being Arab that I agree does occur in a lot of these discussions. I’d definitely be all for him weighing in here on that and everything else.


(Also--I am super interested in your rumored Feminist Flarf Suite and would be very thankful if you would backchannel it to me if it is in a state anywhere close to done and/or meeting with your satisfaction. Thanks!)


Anne Boyer said...

Dear Michael,

You say that sometimes, “Flarfy work does seem to be smarty-pantses minstrelizing (not a word, but I’m going with it) a bunch of less-than-privileged folks because of their lack of education.”

(Of course) the minstrel show involved, first, white men pretending to be black people and engaging in sustained stereotypical and racist attacks on black people, at the same time muddling shit up by co-opting fragments of black culture & presenting them safely to the audience. White people laughed at the supposed ways of black people, or dug their music /were protected from “them,” and then finally black people started minstrelizing themselves. So this was a function of white power (we, this one group, GET to do this to our other), and probably also a ritualizing of anxiety (we DO this because we are very scared of THEM)

Like the Minstrel Show, I think Flarf is also a ritualizing of anxiety. For me, at least (and certainly, I only speak for myself in any of this conversation-- and as a reader of Flarf, mostly, rather than a writer of it). But I do think of Deer Head Nation as the textual equivalent of a Panic Attack. Maybe also Petroleum Hat. The anxiety, however, is very different: it is the anxiety of the age of "terror," right -- that kind of horrible free floating cloud of gloop that goes everywhere and is always over us. So anxiety -- & I have not yet fully figured this one out yet, but something about the carnival is a wickedly effective balm for anxiety, and Flarf is carnival/salve: special fx, a crowd of voices, a blur, noise, spectacle (all on paper – awesome). So also, then, was the minstrel show also this sort of noisy carnival. So also, then, are a great deal of other forms that are also carnival and art-as-ritualized-anxiety.

But if we use the form, “The Minstrel Show” as the form of anxiety-balm equivalent to the Flarf, we know there is one thing similar: People do not go on stage (on page) as themselves. Exactly. Well, of course, neither did Robert Browning. Exactly.

The problem/solution with the Flarf is that there is rarely ever a fix as to just WHO it is that might be on the page (stage). We know Browning made the Bishop. We know the minstrel show white dude has made Mister Bones. We don’t know WHO or What is in the Flarf.

So one critic accuses the evil corporate villain of GOOGLE (only to find out, well, some of those poems he is discussing weren’t made out of GOOGLE), others fixate on something like REDNECKS (ignoring the socio-economic factors that in reality keep the rednecks off the evil corporate GOOGLE that is/isn’t used in the Flarf), some suggest the “uneducated” are the makers/owners of the languages that go on in the Flarf.

We don’t even really know who is responsible for the assemblage – there are these poets, they have names and put the names on this work and sometimes read it aloud, but there is also this collective, and it is weird, they have nicknames and customs, they seem like uber-geeks or hipsters (which is it?) and we do not know what kind of infections/interferences/underhanded dealings go on in the shadowy lair of “google groups.” Most folks don’t even really know who all SNIFFS THE FLARF. People in the collective may have traditional positions of “power.” Do some of them have power? Does this make them all affluent men? Is it easier to act like they are all affluent white men because affluent white men are “NORMAL” and all other people aberrations? Or the flarfists might not be all that powerful (some of them are poor or of color or queer or whatever: and they are POETs, for chrissakes).

But this might still be a minstrel show. This might not be a minstrel show – or if it is, this is one wickedly confusing minstrel show, with no clear power/privilege group and no clear target. See, for example, how a poem about Yeats & Orientalism can be heard as a poem about a silly Asian Chick. Nothing is “straight” in the Flarf world – men write as women, women write as men, queer folks steal heteronormative language and swing from branches, human people write as animal people, animals barf poop, squids fight assclowns, arab guys with threatening names steal symbols from good honest American hunters, everyone talks like a toddler half the time, at least like they are teenagers, and then feminists act like pornographers, poets stop being “poetic,” everyone pirates from each other and everywhere (from the canon, from the news-story, from the academic abstract, from the chatroom, from continental theory, from commerce, from the POETRY BLOGS), & AWWWW YEAHHHHHHHHH becomes the signifier for well, EVERYTHING.

And again, if the critique is the flarfists resemble/ attempt to resemble uneducated people when everyone suspects people who write the Flarf are really just smarty pants, I will remind you the form of the flarf poem is not often the form of a naïve poem of halting meter and off rhyme sometimes associated with the “uneducated” (if it were, if it were people writing such a form, I could see the concern.) It’s not like we are writing FOLK POETRY, or even mocking FOLK POETRY. Indeed, the Flarf poem still often borrows the look, page lay out, and basic organizing patterns of the “experimental” traditions from which many of its writers come. I mean, maybe, if we are going minstrel on anyone – it is, well, YOU there in poetry land reading this, who is also (completely) US, only we take it to toss at ourselves these (as JD calls it) “Ronald McDonald-shaped, sugar-glazed pillows*”


Gary said...

Nada and I gave a talk at SPT on "the outrageous other" last year that I think might be interesting w/respect to this dialog. Or not.

It's at:


Gary said...

Let's see if an HTML tag makes for clickable URLs. To go to the "outrageous other" talk, click:


(Crosses fingers ...)

Michael said...

Between Anne’s response and the new one from Anonymous, as well as the discussion going on at Roger Pao’s blog, there’s a lot to engage with here. I think that maybe I’ll stick to this minstrelsy idea and the stuff surrounding it for the moment, and maybe the way into that is through the last part of Anne’s last post, in which she mentions “folk poetry.” And to respond to that, I’m certainly not critiquing Flarf as a direct kind of mocking parody of poetic forms associated with various vernaculars around the globe. If that were all that Flarf is, someone on the Flarflist would’ve probably called mega-bullshit back in 2001. I think that precisely what makes this discussion dicey and interesting and difficult is the fact that Flarf is messy, overflows, seems to incorporate contradiction, multiplicity, many speakers/subjects. But to me, the fact that Flarf incorporates this messiness, the fact that people do not necessarily go on stage/page as themselves, or even as some other solidly identifiable other identity, doesn’t necessarily mitigate the weight of history or the power relations involved in the relationship between what is said or the speakers invoked in the poem and the identity of the poet who controls what is getting written/said. I mean, to me AWWW YEAHHHHHH, while it may start to carry new meanings for Flarfists themselves given its repeated use, is inextricably tied up with mid-90s R&B slow jams like ones by Boyz II Men in which the man with the deep voice and the cane would say that before launching into his talk-bridge. So for white folks to say that—well, it’s not without its potential problems.

But I don’t want to get lost in my own verbiage or theoretical blah here nor do I want to lose sight of the poem we’re talking about, so let’s stick to “Their Guys...” for the moment. Anne mentions that in many cases with Flarf, “we don’t even really know who is responsible for the assemblage,” but I think that most of us in the particular case of “Their Guys...” are going to assume that because it’s been published in a book bearing the name of Mike Magee that he’s the one responsible for that poem. And most of the readers of this poem aren’t going to know much beyond that—that Magee has a Ph.D. in African-American literature isn’t likely to be known, what his underlying motivation was for writing the particularly isn’t going to be known, what his source texts were is (mostly) not going to be known. (I don’t think I’m stating anything here that isn’t obvious.) So what most of us are likely to come to this poem with is nothing more than Magee’s name and the fact that, if we’re seeing him read in person, he is by all outward appearances a white male, i.e. the mythic norm, the “universal” subject, the “decider.” As I’ve written previously, I do read this poem, as Anne does, as collecting a bunch of stereotypes and slamming them together to create a sort of narrative of the extreme, which tends to put an ironic spin on what is said. I’ve also said that I find whatever critique of racism is being put forth here to be vague and uninteresting.

But what I’ve been having trouble articulating is what to me is making less the internal text of the poem itself feel racist and more the entire gesture involved—i.e. white male person writing and reading this poem—feel like it’s fucked up. But now I think Anonymous and the posts on Roger Pao’s blog are pointing to what’s wrong here. Pam Lu writes in Pao’s comment box that “ultimately I wonder if this poem which refers to ‘their Asian glittering guys’ really has any relevance to Asians at all, other than using them as a provocative trope. The discussion at the link above seems to suggest no. So I'm left with this weird dilemma of a poem that specifically calls out Asian stereotypes and seems to reference race relations between the ‘Occident’ and the ‘Orient,’ but isn't really relevant to the race being discussed. Or rather, it is the race being discussed that apparently isn't relevant to the discussion. Which in itself seems to replicate the dynamics of Orientalism in the Yeats poem that is supposedly being critiqued by ‘Their guys.’”

This is so on point in a number of ways, but what it mainly leads me to—especially “using them as a provocative trope”—is the feeling that what really bothers me about this poem/gesture is that it seems like one more instance of a white male riding the stereotypes (or, in other instances, pain/pleasure/language/labor/everything) of people of color to personal advantage. “Their Guys...” uses a kind of ironicized sensationalism based in racism towards Asians to put forth a sensationalistic and vague anti-racism that serves not to point to a broader/deeper critique but rather tries to demonstrate that the author is a transgressive but socially conscious bad ass. Maybe if I felt as though the poem was doing something that engaged me on other levels (not to continue to harp on that), I would feel differently, but without something added it ends up feeling like this is simply a white male using the deadly serious oppressive stuff involved in these stereotypes in such a way that only builds a personal image.

I feel very fucked-up in saying this, because I realize I am taking what was a discussion of a poem and pushing it back into what feels like a personal attack on the poet, and yet another personal attack on Flarfists in general, and this is truly not what I’m trying to do. I do not doubt Magee’s commitment to anti-racism nor do I want to downplay the amount of time he has undoubtedly devoted to the study of race nor do I think that installing himself as Bad Ass of the Year was Magee’s intent in writing this poem. And as another white male poet named Michael who has a background in ethnic studies and holds many of the same poetic and political concerns as the Flarf folks, I certainly feel like I might be implicated in what I’m saying here as well. But nonetheless, I think this poem and what surrounds it, regardless of intent, ends up having the effect that I’m describing.

I think that I’ve probably slid away from the concept of “minstrelsy” here, which suggests to me that while it’s useful in some ways it probably needs some revision/renaming in order to be useful for discussions on Flarf. But I also feel like I’ve taken up way too much space here and it is reaching time for me to shut up.


Anne Boyer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anne Boyer said...


I was told during my flarf-induction that "Awww Yeah" is an expression that came from channeling one Flarfist's Irish father.

There is much anti-Irish writing on the Flarf list, yes. It is brutal. Also, there is no excuse for what we do to diabetics.

I don't have Mainstream, but in Pet Hat or DHN or V Imp & from what I have read of the Anger Scale, there is little no adoption of black vernacular forms. On the list, I haven't seen it either, so I suspect it might even be taboo.

I even recall reading some good critical thinking on the issue and tohers from Nada back in the early/middle period of flarf: I wish I could find what she said, but it included something about circles of inappropriateness, and good flarf landing like a dart in a certain ring, not the inner and not the outer (or I could have misremembered it, who knows.) But that is why anon's whole black/white minstrel thing is so confusing to me, unless it really has to do with texts I haven't yet encountered.

One theory (not my own) is that to use the language of anti-black racism would be too obviously hitting a "redneck" button (as this language is culturally associated with poor southern white folks) -- while, say, anti-arab or anti-asian prejudice sneaks under social radar as "acceptable" and enters the discourse of the office working computer using class. It is true, if you search for the anti-arab stuff, it comes up in "acceptable" sources from "respectable" and "educated" Americans. Interesting theory, at least.

And on the subject of this, and of Their Guys -- I would point you to Kasey Mohammad's reading of it. I think he says a great deal more of note than I was able to jumble together here in the comment boxes.


tmorange said...

would this contribute to the redneck equation?


Anne Boyer said...

Dear Tom,

I'm not sure I get your point. Do you suggest that a "redneck" wrote "put down your usa today and read a book" and thus this poem is intended to be an imitation of "redneck" language?

I read it very differently -- as an anti-hillbilly slur mixed up in (or an essential part of ) bratty-hateful-teenage-jock language, language which typically insults someone on the basis of class. I could google-construct that some of the beginning came from team-shit-talking jock-fight sources. (And the pun, fitting, right: a poem about aggression brings up from the beginning _this shared_ USA TODAY.)

The poem seems to be in response to/ in the mode of adolescent jockeying for male power. At first, the poem participates in this language, then it seems to create a kind of ambivalent dissolve in the midst of sense/ syntax using totally KSM-like noise:

"if you got like your porch slave frazzle slaked talk
bamboo swizzle stopped fuck ham the
sole not needing to any finger,"

(But then -- eek -- maybe it is the "soul" not needing [to respond] to any finger, which would be an awfully spiritual reading, or at least very Dickinsonian)

Then there is a direct signal of ambivalence at participating in this language of hyper-masculine teen-jock aggression:

"not thinging, OK, but wish the embryonic suspicion would fuck off"

I actually love the way this one goes from "aggressive response to male competitor" to "what the fuck are we fighting for?" in 30 seconds flat: then goes right back to the confusion and NOISE again, the "rah rah" and "cheers."

But I don't see what it has to do with rednecks.


Anonymous said...

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